Vice President Joe Biden has been asked to quickly mediate a long-standing institutional dispute between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Director of National Intelligence, a signal that President Obama's National Security Council could not reach a consensus, sources with knowledge of the situation said.
When Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2005, it neglected to specify how the DNI and the Central Intelligence Agency director would share authority. For decades, the CIA director had executive authority over the entire intelligence community, reported directly to the president, and would designate its station chiefs as the nation's intelligence representative for the country.
Beginning with the first DNI, John Negroponte, the new intelligence directors wanted more control over who served as the country's chief intelligence representative in foreign countries, reasoning that that there would be instances where the CIA's station chief might not be the best person for the job, and noting that the CIA was but one of 16 different intelligence agencies that served the president, policy-makers and the Department of Defense.
Even more important -- and more institutionally tender -- the DNIs want the authority to coordinate and manage resources in those countries without having to go through the CIA director. Who reports to whom? Does a station chief have two masters? The answers -- Biden's answers -- could shape the future of the U.S. intelligence community.
In separate pleas to National Security Adviser James Jones, CIA director Leon Panetta and current DNI Dennis Blair asked for a speedy resolution. The New York Times reported that Blair, in a classified memo, simply granted himself expanded authority over appointments in early May, which Panetta, in an equally classified memo, quickly countermanded.
The Blair memo, known as ICB 402, contained provisions that had been agreed to by Panetta, but when it was circulated, career agency officials objected to its language, and Panetta registered their objections.
There had been reports that John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser and a former senior CIA official, was tasked by Jones with making the decision. Brennan reportedly proposed a compromise, but the National Security Council, of which Biden is a member, could not agree on the details. Biden, who had access to classified intelligence as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, will now the make decision, a sign, administration officials said, that ending the confusion about authority and chain-of-command was a critical, if not readily discussed, priority for President Obama.
Spokespeople for the White House, Biden's office, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council did not comment.
An ongoing conflict has the potential to create a personal rift between Blair and Panetta, who get along fairly well at the moment. With the new administration, the number of station chief vacancies has grown. Some of Obama's national security advisers worry that chiefs were improperly supervised during the Bush administration, leading to charges of criminal misconduct in at least one instance. As the nation's top intelligence official, Admiral Blair wants the power to designate who represents the United States's intelligence interests in foreign countries, reasoning that the CIA's choice in certain cases might not be the right choice for the entire intelligence community. Blair does not seek the power to appoint stations chiefs, who primarily supervise clandestine and covert operations. Other intelligence observers worry that the CIA has used the system for, in the words of a former top agent, a "pre-retirement" circuit for aging agency bureaucrats.
Beyond high-level political wrangling, the dispute has real ramifications on the ground. Traditionally, officers, analysts and managers from other agencies sought permission from the station chiefs before they entered a new country, and the station chief usually had veto power over their movements and operations. The government has created quick reaction task forces that are supposed to be able to flood a country or a region within days of being dispatched. In some countries, the station chiefs do little -- think of Canada, where the U.S. intelligence community conducts most of its operations jointly with the native country's agencies. In other countries, the National Security Agency has far more personnel on the ground.
Even before the DNI post was established, its critics questioned whether a new layer of bureaucracy would improve information sharing and coordination among the nations' 16 intelligence agencies. But the DNI was invested with few formal powers and almost no budget authority, largely a result of lobbying by the Department of Defense, which nominally controls the budget of the largest agency, the NSA, and several others. Reasonably, if the DNI can't appoint his own representatives, then he has indeed become a glorified presidential briefer. President Bush signed an executive order that modestly increased the DNI's authority... key word here is modestly. The daily access to President Obama is important, but controlling budgets and operational tasking is probably more useful.
Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.